Major spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker follow
The first, hottest, and possibly most predictable take to come out of the initial reactions to Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker was that director J. J. Abrams had retconned (a.k.a. reversed) the divisive subversions of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. For some particularly vicious critics, it seemed they took the title of Johnson’s newest movie Knives Out as a coded message on how to eviscerate Episode IX.
This knee-jerk response, unfortunately, takes every choice that Abrams made at face value and leads to a misread of what his narrative actually does and achieves. When viewed in the context of a three-act structure, Abrams’ choices are creative fulfillments of the bleak places that Johnson’s Act II took us to.
The “retcon” critique has since defined the ongoing social media backlash against The Rise Of Skywalker from those who believe that The Last Jedi’s reformations are exactly what the Star Wars saga needed, even if disgruntled members of the fanbase saw them as betrayals and retcons of their own (from how bitter Luke was portrayed to marginalizing the importance of the Jedi religion).
For two years, admirers of Last Jedi had to deal with obnoxious haters and their idiotic “Ruin Johnson” bile. Now, the opportunity for revenge against that online hive mind has been unleashed right back at them in a torrential pile-on of disdain. The internet is overflowing with condescending rips of Abrams, his Rise Of Skywalker finale, and the Last Jedi haters who his finale is overanxious to appease (or so goes the claim of Team Rian advocates). The tensions have broadened into an ongoing proxy war for cultural frustrations and divisions that no pop culture franchise should be burdened to litigate.
The narrative of the renewed toxicity has thus been set: you either love the retcons or you don’t. The problem with that narrative, however, is that retconning is not what J. J. Abrams actually did.
The Rise Of Skywalker takes every dark turn and lingering, unanswered mystery from The Last Jedi and imbues each one with purpose, design, and meaning. Abrams doesn’t reject the themes and ideas that Johnson raised; he embraces them.
To make that case in the midst of the dark, toxic haze of the Twittersphere, lets examine a few key instances that Rise detractors cite as retcons, consider them with less cynicism and, most importantly, in the context of the new trilogy (not just an Episode VIII vacuum) and the full nine episode saga. When we do, these controversial elements can be rightly seen to affirm Rian Johnson’s contributions to the mythos, not “correct” them.
Full confession: I didn’t like many of Rian Johnson’s choices in The Last Jedi . I, too, believed that a course-correction from them was the only possible path to salvage what Johnson had, er, ruined.
Much to my surprise, however, that “only possible path” is not what I saw from Abrams in The Rise Of Skywalker. To my pleasant disbelief, I saw a fulfillment of what Johnson established. As a result, The Rise Of Skywalker has not only changed my mind regarding how I think and feel about The Last Jedi; I now see Episode VIII as absolutely vital.
Let’s take a look at some of the key points of contention and examine how these parallels between the two episodes complete each other rather than contradict.
— REY IS A PALPATINE. This major reveal (the most despised by Rise haters) explains and fulfills so much of what Johnson raised but left unanswered. The most important mystery it solves is why Rey was so drawn to the Dark Side while training with Luke on Ahch-To. She wasn’t merely tempted by it; she instinctively jumped to its presence and what it offered to her. As Luke said, she didn’t even hesitate, and her attachment to it was the greatest (and most dangerous) raw power he’d ever seen. This alone validates the Palpatine lineage.
Then, too, it explains Johnson’s greatest contribution to the trilogy: the Force connection between Rey and Kylo Ren. Dubbed a Force Dyad by Abrams, this new expression of the Force is one of such magnitude that it demanded an explanation. Abrams provided one: the two people linked in that Dyad share the most consequential bloodlines of the saga. That isn’t a cop-out; it’s a substantial culmination for the whole saga.
— REY’S PARENTS WERE SOMEBODY. This is a sub-section of the previous point but worth highlighting specifically. In Last Jedi, Kylo Ren told Rey that her parents were nobodies, emphasizing the point with a rather crass, cruel manipulation, saying “You come from nothing. You’re nothing.” Now in Rise Of Skywalker, that changes. Yes, Rey’s parents are still nobodies, but we learn that their lowly status was by choice rather than by birth because Rey’s father was a son of Palpatine.
Nevertheless, for a saga in which a major theme throughout all nine episodes is Choice vs. Fate, to have Rey’s parents choose a “nobody” status instead of the fate of her father’s birth actually fits the very essence and ideas that creator George Lucas explored. Furthermore, for Last Jedi truthers to demand that one statement from an unreliable narrator like Kylo Ren must be accepted blindly as canon without any verification from at least one other reliable source is a very big leap. Even in Return of the Jedi, Luke didn’t take Vader’s paternal claim at face value; he had both Yoda and Obi-Wan confirm the truth for him.
If Johnson had verified Kylo’s statement in the same manner, gripes of a retcon would carry more weight. But he didn’t, so they don’t. As a result, Kylo’s Last Jedi claim falls into the more ambiguous category of “from a certain point of view” that Kenobi established in A New Hope. In The Last Jedi, that “certain point of view” came from the villain, no less, who was trying to turn Rey to the Dark Side.
— KYLO’S HELMET. Here’s the most nitpicky of all the gripes about Rise Of Skywalker, and also the most nonsensical. The reassembly of Kylo’s helmet isn’t some whiny take-back by Abrams; it’s a layered metaphor of where Kylo has come to and come from. For one, as I said in my review, Kylo’s reassembling of his shattered helmet from The Last Jedi in no way nullifies the point that Snoke made about it, i.e. that it is a wannabe front for a guy who’s just a “child in a mask.” That still holds true. It is a false identity that Kylo is hiding behind.
And secondly, because it was Snoke who mocked the helmet – i.e. the leader whom Kylo despised so much that he killed him – it makes complete sense that Kylo would reassemble the visage that Snoke maliciously ridiculed. If killing Snoke was Kylo’s first act of asserting his own identity and power, then soldering his mask back together completes that assertion. It is a declaration of identity, a final act of defiance towards Snoke, and a message to Palpatine who was Snoke’s puppet master.
— LUKE’S LIGHTSABER CATCH. One moment that epitomized what many people despised about Rian Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi was the very first one: when Luke flippantly tossed his lightsaber aside, reflecting the Jedi master’s complete rejection of his religion. It was nothing short of a sacrilegious act, one that many Star Wars fans felt was something that Luke would never do no matter how dark of a place he may have gone to. In Rise Of Skywalker, when Rey is at her lowest point and ready to give up, she also throws that lightsaber away into a blazing fire…only for Force Ghost Luke to emerge from the fire to catch the lightsaber, save it, and hand it back to Rey with the chastisement, “A Jedi’s weapon deserves more respect.”
Many Last Jedi devotees took this as a direct F.U. from Abrams to Johnson, but that is a contemptuous assumption . On the contrary, Luke’s line to Rey only strengthens and substantiates the previous saber toss because the two moments are at the opposite ends of Luke’s trilogy arc. In The Last Jedi, Luke wasn’t just depressed or resigned in that moment. He had completely closed himself off from the Force, as Rey later noted. That is the Luke who tossed the lightsaber. Of course that’s what he would have done; he wanted the Jedi to die. The tossing of the lightsaber embodies that rather boldly in one action.
Now, with one line of dialogue to Rey in Rise, Luke exemplifies his full return to the Good Side, a return that began in Rian Johnson’s finale when Luke declared to Kylo that he wouldn’t be the last jedi. This is Abrams completing the arc that Johnson set for Luke, not giving it a middle finger.
Indeed, for Rian Johnson to have had both Chosen Ones (Luke and Rey) save the day at the end of Last Jedi, he had already made the choice to subvert his own subversions and embrace once again (not reject) the importance of their archetypes within the mythos, a point that most Last Jedi acolytes completely gloss over in their quoting of Kylo (“Let it all die”) and admiration of Dark Luke’s secularism. Before Abrams even has a say in Episode IX, Johnson completes his film by declaring that some things from the past – the most important things, the good things, the eternal things – should never die. Luke’s line to Rey in Rise about a Jedi’s weapon exemplifies that very ethos.
— LINEAGE DOES NOT DEFINE A JEDI. One of the ideas introduced in The Last Jedi is the notion that anyone can become a Jedi if so inspired, not just those who are “chosen” or are of an elite bloodline. Detractors of Rise Of Skywalker feel that Rey’s Palpatine lineage reverses all of that, and doubles down on the importance of elite family lineage. (Some have argued that The Last Jedi proposed a full democratization of the Force, but that seemed to only factor in Luke’s dark, misguided angst and personal guilt, and ignored his re-embrace of the Jedi Order at the end). This, like the previous complaints cited, seems nonsensical on its face, as if the prequels never existed.
This is not an either/or situation. It never has been. As long as there have been Jedi, they have come from all races, species, and walks of life. Chosen Ones are rare, not constant, emerging only in times of extreme crisis. As such, having Rey be a Palpatine does not promote or cement an elitist perspective. Yes, lineage is important because identity is important, for Rey and for anyone. The two are intertwined and have been core thematic signifiers at the heart of Star Wars for over forty years.
Even so, while lineage can define us, Luke wisely tells Rey in Rise of Skywalker, “There are things stronger than blood.” In that one single statement, Abrams has Luke sum up and affirm what The Last Jedi was all about. Choices; that’s what’s stronger than blood. Choices are stronger than fate, too, even for Chosen Ones. The Chosen One archetype is a simply that of a leader, but it’s never a solo act. Leaders inspire other people with their gifts and powers, they don’t nullify them, which is exactly what Rey did for the Broom Kid child slave at the end of Last Jedi. Rey gave him and his friends someone (and something) to aspire to. Broom Kid did not symbolize a rejection of a Chosen One, nor did he embody the misguided belief that the Jedi should die. He represented an expansion of who the Jedi could include, if properly led.
One other alleged retcon is the lack of screen time for Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, and most opinions on the matter seem to assume the worst about Abrams’ motives. This is the most subjective aspect being argued and therefore nothing is likely to change anyone’s mind as to whether Rose “deserved better” or was treated fairly as a supporting character who was just introduced in the middle episode. Regardless, what shouldn’t be lost is that Rose Tico indeed had a vital role in Episode VIII, and that’s a great thing. That’s never going to change and, years from now, that’s what will be appreciated.
Abrams even put a button on non-controversial seeds that Johnson planted, like the underwater X-Wing at Ahch-To. Not only did he find an ingenious use for it, but Abrams did it in a way that brought Luke’s biggest failure on Dagobah full circle, making for a sweet personal redemption.
But the most satisfying fulfillment? Leia Organa: Jedi Master! What an absolute thrill to see Rey serving as apprentice to the daughter of Skywalker. My heart leaped. While this payoff was long overdue, it was made credible by the awesome displays of the Force that Rian Johnson imagined for Leia. Without them, seeing Leia serve in the role of Jedi Master (while possible) would’ve felt like a reach.
In addition to these specific examples, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t Abrams’ job to simply complete and adhere to Johnson’s story. The sun didn’t rise on this final trilogy with Episode VIII. Abrams is completing his film as much as Rian’s and, more broadly, an entire nine episode mythos, one founded on the circular tenets of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
Anakin and Luke were nobodies (and even orphans of a sort) who became somebody’s by virtue of their lineage. Each had a destiny forged for them within their bloodline, but it was their very different choices that ultimately steered their fates. And now in the last three episodes, through both her bloodline and her choices, Rey completes that Three Trilogy structure.
Could it have been done differently? Sure, and I actually posited a way two years ago of how J. J. could fulfill Rey’s “nobody” heritage while still making her lineage vital. (You can read that here.) I’d even be so bold as to suggest that my way is better than Abrams’ (or at least less problematic, given the current divide), especially as it relates to honoring the “nobody” status that Rian established.
But even if it is, that doesn’t invalidate what J. J. chose, or somehow make J. J.’s choice a retcon. It’s simply a different choice, one that adheres to Rian’s text while also fulfilling the underlying narrative and archetypal fabric of Lucas’s first two trilogies. This doesn’t have to be an either / or situation. It can be both / and, and that’s exactly what Abrams made it.
Most importantly, consider how this entire saga began: with the (in)Sidious defeat of the Jedi and the overthrow of the galaxy by a Palpatine. Who better to bring balance to it all at the very end than a Palpatine as well?
It’s fair to not like some (or any) of Abrams’ choices, but we must be fair about what they are and are not. As with Rey’s heritage, there other ways that Abrams could’ve resolved the other cliffhangers of The Last Jedi, a whole myriad of them. But the answers that Abrams chose, like them or not, aren’t a course-correction. They are a completion.
In the arc of a well-told story, the best Second Acts take you to the darkest places you never thought that a story could go or possibly come back from, including the betrayal of heroes and their ideals. The best Third Acts, then, somehow pull off that miracle with credibility and meaning. Together, The Last Jedi and The Rise Of Skywalker do exactly that, striking an intriguing and meaningful balance to the mythos of The Force.